Can indoor cats really be happy? Cat lovers can -- and do -- maintain vehemently opposed opinions on this issue. But you can't disagree with the fact that the free-roaming life can be dangerous for a cat.
My friends who let their cats roam free have had their pets run over by cars (too many times to count), pulled apart by dogs (once), by coyotes (twice) and poisoned (a half-dozen times, most times accidentally but at least once suspiciously). And those are just the deaths they know about. Mostly, my friends' cats just disappear, with sad and frequent regularity.
Such tragedies don't happen to indoor cats, who are statistically likely to outlive free-roaming cats by a about a decade. Compared to an existence filled with cars, coyotes, traps, poisons and cat-hating neighbors, the life of an indoor cat is relatively risk-free.
Still, keeping a cat inside is more difficult, both in terms of the time spent maintaining the animal, and the effort and imagination required to keep the animal mentally and physically happy. But I've seen enough indoor cats to know that they seem perfectly content, especially if they've never been allowed to roam.
Since you've taken away a large part of the cat's natural world when you keep them inside, you need to put in "environmental enrichments" to make up for the loss. If you're going to have an indoor cat, you need to think about ways to make your home more entertaining to your cat, engaging as many senses as possible.
Your first investment should be a cat tree, a place for your pet to scratch, climb, perch and generally feel superior to the beings below. Cats love to scratch -- it keeps their claws sharp, gives them a good stretch and allows them to mark their territory with scent. With patience, most cats can be trained to use a cat tree or post instead of furniture.
Next up: toys. You'll need an interactive toy you can use to play with your cat, such as a "fishing" pole. Add some toys for batting around, such as small stuffed animals or balls with bells in them. You don't even need to spend money: Cats can be kept entertained with empty boxes or shopping bags, corks from wine bottles or the tops of milk containers.
Don't forget to jazz up the scent of toys with catnip or valeria, both of which you can grow yourself, so you'll always have a fresh supply. And while you're planting, be sure to keep fresh grasses growing for your cat's nibbling pleasure.
You can also work on ways to give your cat safe access to the outdoors, such as with a cat door into a screened-in porch. You can also buy kits for portable outdoor pens, completed with tunnels for connecting to the house. I know of several people who have put together some grand outdoor spaces, including a two-story enclosure clinging to the side of the house with areas for climbing, sunbathing and hiding. These needn't be expensive, especially if you're a capable do-it-yourselfer.
Yes, it's hard to convert a free-roaming cat to a life indoors. If your cat is used to coming and going when he pleases, conversion is best done when you move, rather than suddenly restricting your cat's territory -- a change no self-respecting cat will quietly accept. But if you're patient and firm, even the most stubborn of cats will eventually adapt.
When my friends tell me they simply cannot keep their cats inside, I say this: The next time one of your free-roaming cats disappears, promise me that the next one will be kept safe inside. Just try it, and see how it works.
Whatever a cat loses by not roaming free he'll gain from the pleasures you can pack in your home. And he'll really benefit from the long, healthy life enjoyed by so many indoor cats.
BARK BACK: Do you have suggestions for making life better for your indoor cat? Let me know! If you have a digital image (jpeg, please) of your pet, send that along as well, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to know: Is it time to let go?
Q: How can I tell if my dog is unhappy, in pain, or simply has spent his allotted time and is ready for some help to the other side?
I realize that my dog is old at 11, especially for an English bulldog. He recently has been seen by the veterinarian, but the results were confusing and not at all helpful. He has eye problems, ear problems, skin problems, breathing problems and arthritis, but he has always these problems, to some degree.
He has a naturally sad-looking face, and all his life he has never complained of pain even when it was warranted. I worry that I'm being selfish out of pure love and am keeping him going beyond his time.
He currently is on Rimadyl and Cephalexin, but I'm not sure if I should continue making him take them. Without them, he is miserable (a completely different dog). I wonder if I'm just prolonging the inevitable by covering it up with medication.
Essentially he is a sweet and loving dog, but it drives me crazy thinking the medicine is uncalled-for. Any advice is greatly appreciated, as I love my dog. He is my whole world. -- C.K., via e-mail
A: Yours is the hardest decision any of us will make about our animal companions. And before I give you any advice, let me say how very sorry I am that you're wrestling with this now.
That said, I think you're not at the ultimate decision point yet. Your dog sounds about normal for a senior pet, with mostly good days and a few not-so-good. His medications are maintaining his quality of life, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Rimadyl and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (veterinarians call them NSAIDs) can dramatically improve the quality of life for arthritic pets, as long as precautions are taken to ensure the drugs are appropriate for an individual animal and will not cause a bigger problem than they're trying to treat. (Screening for certain health problems before some of these medications are prescribed is essential, as is monitoring once the animal is taking them. Your veterinarian will have more information, so ask!)
My Sheltie Andy lived happily on NSAIDs -- Rimadyl, specifically -- for the last four years of his life. I didn't consider it "covering up" his symptoms, but rather buying him a few more years of good quality time.
I have been where you are more times than I care to think about, and I've always felt that when you know an animal, you just somehow feel it deep in your heart when it's time. The "symptoms" include a lack of interest in eating, even if special foods are offered, and the glazed expression and panting that goes with chronic pain. But there's also something intangible, a sense that the animal is ready to go and is asking to be set free.
I have always preferred to be three days early rather than one hour late in making these decisions. But I have also made good use of both traditional pain medications and alternative treatments like acupuncture to maintain a high quality of life for as long as possible. The goodbyes are always heartbreaking, but at least I am left with the knowledge that I did the very best I could in a world where no one ever knows for sure if the timing was absolutely right.
Please know that almost every school or college of veterinary medicine now offers a pet-loss support service, staffed by trained veterinary student volunteers. The University of California-Davis was one of the pioneers in this field. Its hot line number is (800) 565-1526 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Pacific time, M-F. More information: www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/petloss/index.htm.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
Humane handling of feral cat problem
For years, the accepted way of handling a surplus of feral cats -- domestic cats gone wild -- was to trap them and kill them. Problem was, the killing solution was always temporary: More cats came back.
Humane advocates thought there had to be a better way, and so in recent years the practice of trap, neuter and release (TNR) has gained ground as a way of handling problems with feral cats. Ferals are trapped, vaccinated and neutered, and then released to the area from which they came originally. Maintained in place by people who feed them, the cats will keep others from colonizing an area as their own numbers slowly dwindle.
TNR is vehemently opposed by people who continue to insist that extermination is the best way to handle feral cats, pointing to problems with predation and mess. Auburn University has been trying to come up with some answers by practicing TNR on its campus in a program managed by volunteers from the university's college of veterinary medicine. The Web site of Operation Cat Nap (www.operationcatnap.org) explains how TNR programs are supposed to work, and how one actually does work on the gracious Alabama campus, where almost 150 feral cats have gone through the program.
A spray solution to pet odors
One of James Herriot's classic stories involves a dog whose flatulence causes much concern to the animal's upper-class owner. While trying to solve the problem, Dr. Herriot comes to realize that the dog is much adored by a groundskeeper. It's a perfect match: The groundskeeper has no sense of smell, and the dog ends up living with him.
For those of us whose noses work perfectly, living with pets can sometimes be a problem, especially when we're living with animals who have the same problem as the dog in the Herriot story.
I have one of those dogs, a retriever who produces enough gas to be considered an alternative source of energy.
Petrotech Odor Eliminator is designed to defeat pet odors. And in an admittedly unscientific test in my home, the product worked quite well against the noxious fumes routinely emitted by Ben, seeming to remove odor rather than cover it up. The product retails for $12.95 in either direct spray or mist varieties, and is available from pet-supply retailers, catalog companies and Web sites.
Gentle grooming is good for your cat
Over the long haul, you're going to have very little success doing anything your cat doesn't want you to do, and you should always keep this in mind when trying to brush your cat.
Still, you'd be surprised at what some cats are willing to put up with. Show cats, for example, are conditioned to tolerate a great deal of grooming, traveling and handling by strangers -- and with very little fuss. That's what they're used to, after all, and the show life is the only one they've known.
Although your cat may never display the confidence and outgoing temperament of a seasoned show cat, you can do a lot to help him learn to enjoy regular brushing. Here's how:
-- Go slowly. Introduce new routines a little bit at a time and build up your cat's tolerance over time. Be positive! Grooming is good time spent together.
-- Give yourself a fresh start. If you have longhaired cat who's matted, arrange to have him shaved down by a groomer so you don't start out your relationship by jerking on your cat's fur as you struggle to remove mats. Sure, the cat will look funny, but the coat grows back quickly. And by the time it does, your cat will be more used to being gently groomed.
-- Reward your cat. Use treats, praise and gentle petting to encourage your cat's cooperative. You can't make a cat do anything he doesn't want to, so praise is the only way to go.
-- Know when to call it a day. You'll do better if you stop before your cat becomes impatient, annoyed or afraid, but if you miss the signs -- or feel yourself becoming cross -- taper off quickly and end the session on a note of praise and petting. If you've really blown it, just let go. Try again a few hours later or another day.
Never try to hold onto an angry or frightened cat. Failure to respect a cat's temper or fear can result in your being badly bitten or clawed.
BY THE NUMBERS
Good dog, safe dog
Although free-roaming vicious dogs are the stuff of our nightmares, we are statistically more likely to be bitten by dogs we know. Experts say the numbers of serious or deadly dog bites can be dramatically reduced by neutering and by raising animals to be well-socialized, well-trained family members -- as opposed to neglected outdoor "protection" dogs.
Some dog-bite statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:
-- 80 percent of dog-bite incidents involving children are inflicted by a family dog (30 percent) or a neighbor's dog (50 percent);
-- 75 percent of fatal dog bites were inflicted on family members or guests on the family's property;
-- 8 percent of dog bites involving adults were work-related (inflicted on such workers as meter readers, repairmen, etc.).
Lead can be dangerous to inquisitive parrots
Is your parrot at risk for lead poisoning? Lead can be found in weights for fishing and for curtains, in bell clappers, solder, some types of putty or plaster, some linoleum, stained glass, costume jewelry, leaded foils from champagne and wine bottles, batteries, some ceramic glazes, the backs of some mirrors, some paints and galvanized wire.
No bird lover is going to feed a fishing weight to a pet, but as always, the inquisitive nature of parrots put them at risk. The energetic chewing of a parrot can even reveal lead paint many layers down on the walls of an old house.
You have to keep an eye out for dangerous metals in your bird's environment, but some things you may worry about aren't a problem. Pencil leads, for example, aren't made of lead any more, and contrary to some long-held beliefs, you have nothing to fear from the ink on newspaper used to line a cage or from "child-safe" paints.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600